“Hamilton” is going to be just fine here in London. In the Broadway smash’s first outing beyond American soil, there’s a lot riding on the West End transfer of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit. Success here should pave the way for runs around the world, but, given that both style and subject matter are so all-American — a nation’s origin story, told in its own inimitable musical voice — that never felt like a sure thing.
But the moment you step into the newly refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre to find teenagers softly singing the show’s score to themselves pre-show, it feels like a done deal. “Hamilton” is all but sold out until July, with another batch of tickets released ahead of opening night.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tumbling hip-hop score, with its elastic, somersaulting lyrics and a surfeit of showstoppers, hardly needs more superlatives heaped upon it. Reviewing it feels like sizing up the Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Fifth and, in truth, “Hamilton” lands on the London stage looking every inch the classic. It had already impacted on musical theater this side of the Atlantic, or at least upped its ambitions and updated its sensibilities, long before an all-new British cast got its mouths around Miranda’s material.
If they make it seem a bit more Shakespearean, a little less street, small bother. Alexander Hamilton’s story, from revolutionary rising up against British colonial rule to stately treasury secretary fighting on home fronts, more than stands up to that. What it loses, perhaps inevitably, is the strength of connection to the national narrative. With that, the propulsion of the second half drops off somewhat, but so does the radicalism of the color-conscious casting. The founding fathers don’t stare back at us from our banknotes, nor do we study them in school. The idea lands, but not the accompanying feeling. It’s entirely possible that people now see Miranda and company when they picture the men in question, and maybe that’s a job well done.
What changes there are stem from the casting. In Jamael Westman, London has itself a fine Hamilton to fill Miranda’s sizeable shoes. At 6’4”, he looms above the rest of the cast and cuts quite the Mr. Darcy-style dash. That, in itself, tilts the whole show on its axis. Westman’s Hamilton wears his smarts like a designer suit. He’s not so much “young, scrappy and hungry” as smooth, smug and entitled. His eyebrows are almost permanently cocked, as if checking himself out in the mirror, and his bamboozling outburst against Samuel Seabury in “Farmer Refuted” feels more like vain showboating than revolutionary fervor.
That, though, fits just fine with Hamilton’s hot-headed youth. At 25, only out of RADA last year, Westman seems so much fresher than Miranda ever did and, though he ages up well as the second half wears on, sage and somber with glasses perched on the end of his nose, it takes a while to warm to him, rather than merely marvel at him. The whole revolutionary set, in fact, seem like carefree, faintly obnoxious, college bros: Tarinn Calender’s dopey Hercules Mulligan, Cleve September’s swish, ponytailed John Laurens and the impishly unpredictable Lafayette of Jason Pennycooke — a Prince to Daveed Diggs’ Andre 3000. The treat is watching them grow up, into themselves and into soldiers and statesmen.
As Aaron Burr, Giles Terera becomes the grad student to their freshmen. A lithe, even slimey, solitary figure always desperately trying and failing to fit in, Terera grounds Burr’s growing resentment beautifully. He’s the Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart, and if he’s repeatedly overlooked for his junior, it has more to do with Hamilton’s charm and charisma than any singular merit or wit. With a slight lisp and a slighter frame, Terrera’s Burr has a gnat-like quality, easily swatted away despite his brilliance. Little wonder life grinds him down to bitterness, even something like madness and, as Burr’s star falls and his life stalls, Terera’s eyes cross in blinkered enmity. You feel for him hugely, particularly given the way he drops his guard in the slow surge of “Wait for It” and the delicacy that is “Dear Theodosia.”
If there’s a disappointment here, it’s the Schuyler sisters. Given that the trio gets all the best tunes — “Helpless,” “Satisfied” and “Burn,” — it’s a shame that Thomas Kail’s production dresses them like candy and treats them as trophies. At their best in their lightly ironic opening theme “The Schuyler Sisters,’ triangulated like TLC, they have a playful repartee, but they pale as the show unfolds. Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza is sweetly nondescript, throwing away her songs by treating them as showpieces, while Rachel John falls far short of the sharp wit and supercharged integrity Angelica requires. Neither musters much chemistry with Westman, who looks lankily awkward at either’s side. It’s left to Christine Allado as Hamilton’s mistress Maria Reynolds to instill some much-needed luster. Without talismanic women, “Hamilton” leans into lopsidedness.
One Brit, though, banishes any thought of Broadway: Michael Jibson, whose baby-faced King George is impetuousness personified. Apparently pinned in place by the weight of his crown, his body stays stock still as his face flickers through a conveyor belt of emotions. His eyes bulge mischievously, his lips pucker. He’s gooey one second, wrathful the next, then all kinds of petulant. At one point, he seems to tire of his own solo, rolling his eyes before over-extending a note because, being king, well, he can. It’s the most magisterial cameo.
If it stands out, that’s partly because Kail’s staging is somewhat underwhelming. Heresy perhaps, but it doesn’t stand up to London standards. For all it photographs beautifully, in the flesh, in the room where it happens, it seems strangely dated. David Korins’ design, with its fake brick walls and its stained ye-olde timber frame, combines with Howell Binkley’s soft-focus color-cushioned lighting to give the whole an air of flimsy theatricality — as waxen as anything in Madame Tussauds. For all the contemporary, contradictory swagger of Paul Tazewell’s stylings, it all looks a little too “Les Mis” to convince. British directors tend to take a more matter-of-fact approach, but the trappings of staginess detract. Too few of Kail’s images really land — a motif about pens and paper, words and letters excepted — and, though it has its memorable moments, Andy Blankenbuehler’s near-constant choreography can blur itself into blandness.
Again, though, small bother. It’s Miranda’s score that sings, his lyrics that land and Hamilton’s story that stirs. London’s going to love it.